This piece is part of our Forging the Path series in which CASIS experts share knowledge and insight from their experience managing a national lab in space.
Francisco Córdova serves as Chief Operating Officer for the ISS National Laboratory, the world’s premier space-based research facility, where he leads a team that is shaping the future of research in space and is working with commercial partners to establish a robust and sustainable low Earth orbit economy.
Our nation has always had a bold vision when looking beyond our planet for the betterment of humanity. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy declared science and space as the new frontier. He stressed the importance of the U.S. leading the way into this uncharted territory that held great promise to provide value to our nation and to the world.
In his historic address on the U.S. space effort, President Kennedy said, “In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.”
Today we stand at the crossroads of an opportunity to continue U.S. leadership in science and space. Through the more than 20 years of continuous human presence on the International Space Station (ISS), we have learned how to live and work in space. Using this unique laboratory in low Earth orbit (LEO), we have uncovered the power of space-based research and technology development (R&D) to provide value for people on Earth. From studies to enhance cancer drug therapies to research on advanced manufacturing, the ISS has become a proven platform for discovery and innovation. We must now build the bridge that takes our nation from the ISS to future R&D platforms in LEO and the value they will provide for decades to come.
Through sustained government policy, the U.S. has built a strong foundation for a robust LEO ecosystem supporting space-based R&D. Reliable, continuous government funding has enabled industry to begin to join in this effort. We are now at the threshold of accelerating scientific discovery in LEO, expanding space-based industry, and increasing U.S. global competitiveness. Achieving this would serve to cement national security and maintain U.S. leadership in science and technology in space. However, it is critical for the U.S. to continue developing policy that advances the space R&D ecosystem to self-sustaining levels.
The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, Inc. (CASIS) has served as manager of the ISS National Laboratory for the past 12 years. In this time, the ISS National Lab has succeeded in establishing demand for space-based R&D among nontraditional users, in enabling supply-side growth through support of companies that offer payload development and integration services, and in fostering private investment in the LEO economy. Of the more than 600 ISS National Lab-sponsored payloads that have launched, more than 70% were from commercial entities. Additionally, more than 70 startup companies have benefited from leveraging the ISS National lab, with $1.9 billion in funding generated post flight for development efforts. Through this experience, CASIS has identified several areas in which U.S. government support is needed for a successful transition to an industry-led LEO R&D ecosystem.
First, we believe the government should outline well-defined national priorities, needs, and policies for LEO R&D that extend across all U.S. government agencies and translate into tangible and predictable government demand. A whole-of-government approach and consistent demand from the government are essential to de-risk space-based R&D and stimulate private capital investment in LEO infrastructure and facilities.
The government should also consider the use of financial mechanisms to further incentivize investment in the LEO economy. Mechanisms such as loan guarantees and tax incentives could help drive economic development in LEO and spur investment in infrastructure to scale up the LEO R&D ecosystem. This scale up would lower costs for both the public and private sectors.
The government should continue to provide grant funding and LEO facility access to the research community to ensure that LEO R&D is affordable during this time of transition. This is particularly important for research from small businesses and academic institutions as well as early-stage fundamental science. Transportation to the space station and use of ISS facilities and crew time are currently subsidized by NASA through the ISS National Lab. However, there is no indication of the costs for such services on future LEO platforms or funding sources to cover these costs. Government grants and in-kind support will ensure continued progress from entities that are unable to cover the costs themselves.
And lastly, the government should enlist an independent third party to maintain stewardship of U.S. government resources to support advancement of the LEO R&D ecosystem. A neutral third party, such as CASIS, is necessary to steward government funds and minimize conflicts of interest in allocating government resources across future commercial platforms. To maximize the value returned to the U.S. taxpayer from this investment, the independent third party should have expertise as well as operational and economic experience in managing space-based R&D on LEO platforms.
As the U.S. continues to lead the way through the vast frontier of space, the value we gain from space-based R&D will touch every part of our lives, on Earth and beyond. As President Kennedy said at the start of our nation’s space endeavors, “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. […] The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.” The ISS National Lab is honored to play a key role in establishing the robust LEO R&D ecosystem of the future that will continue to benefit not only our nation but all of humankind.